“Mara’s pregnant again.”
Part One: Everything Else
It begins right after the end of “Of Mice and Lem” with Kavanaugh in Corrine’s house. He’s unstable now, defeated, and more dangerous because of that (director Stephen Kay uses the low light of dawn to make Kavanaugh look even more confused and lost here), starting by asking for forgiveness (already an incredibly creepy move) and ending by pinning Corrine against the door and grabbing her below the waist. (The Shield doesn’t use the image of a big black man pressing against a small white woman gratuitously, but it doesn’t avoid it either.) Kavanaugh’s talking now about “taking the fight to him,” and that clearly will be outside the bounds of the law. Meanwhile, Lem misses his surrender into custody (good shot of the Strike Team exchanging looks behind Becca) and that brings Kavanaugh back, right into the clubhouse, promising the Team they’ll be under constant surveillance until Lem is caught. Kavanaugh’s gleeful here, but it’s nothing like the beginning of the season; he’s a full predator now.
Beginning here, this episode picks up so many characters and events of the preceding season (really, of the whole series) on its relentless way to the end. The weight of the last five seasons, in atmosphere but more importantly in specifics, drives all the characters forward. Events have such urgency here that the great filmmaking on display can be missed on the first four or so viewings: there’s a later image of Kavanaugh in conversation with Aceveda, at the bottom center of the frame, head turned to the side, that makes looks like a portrait of a dictator made by an enemy; there’s a cut from Lem, just off the phone with Becca, at frame left with negative space frame right, to the three other members of the Strike Team, with the composition exactly reversed; there’s a rack focus in the late Team conversation from Shane in the background to Ronnie in the foreground to Vic in the middle; there’s a late-episode shot of the three of them at the meeting spot, their faces lined up on a diagonal. The ambient sound, from the metal in the trailer park to Tina’s cries in the final scene, heightens every step of the drama. Most effectively of all, for most of the episode, the camera moves more than it ever has, especially in scenes with Lem, exactly right for a story where everyone’s come unmoored and everyone swings wildly between options and possibilities.
In the midst of all the climbing pressure and events, there’s a moment of grace with Danny and her newborn son, Lee, in the hospital. It’s a nice touch on the part of the Barn to just donate her the money, since Danny isn’t revealing Vic is the father. It’s an even nicer touch in that scene to withhold confirmation of that until the very end. Vic certainly acts like a dad all through it (the range of Chiklis’ performance in this episode is extraordinary, as is Catherine Dent’s calm in this scene), letting his face be dominated by wonder, but they don’t acknowledge it until they both say “when he’s old enough.” It’s a gentle, suspenseful scene, something that could have been on Lost, the life to be paid for with a death.
Emolia comes back, with another tip about Salvadorans and the grenades; it involves a Mexican importer, and the Team can use him to get Lem to Tijuana. (Again, we see this with just an exchange of looks.) Emolia wants to be paid up front for the information; Kavanaugh got rid of her and she wants to leave; she had sex with a contact for this information and then got gang raped. You can see with Vic’s expression that he’s trying so hard not to sympathize with her, that he makes himself not care when he says “if you had done things differently, none of us would have gotten torn up.” When she does take the money, it’s a great touch from Onahoua Rodriguez that there is absolutely no shame in the gesture. She’s a betrayer, but a professional one, and she expects to be treated as such. The information leads to the importer’s office (great shot of the office above the store) and to the raid by the Team on another cache of grenades. The raid, once again, shows The Shield’s skill with chaotic action sequences that spill out in multiple directions, something we’ve been seeing since the first season. It also gives Shane access to a grenade.
Kavanaugh keeps losing resources all through “Postpartum,” moving closer to his last play with Aceveda. In the conversations in the Captain’s office, Kavanaugh, Aceveda, Becca, and Claudette are all placed in distinct, spaced positions in the room; there are no groups of characters and no alliances here, everyone has their own agenda. In the second conversation, Aceveda comes in with a new deal for Lem: longer jail time but no requirement that he turn against the Team. In the first conversation, Kavanaugh pushes for Lem to give up the Strike Team; in the second, Aceveda comes in with the deal–more jail time for Lem, but that’s all, he doesn’t have to give anyone up. Kavanaugh makes a last push with Aceveda–scare Vic, get him to go to Lem, and get him for aiding and abetting. “It won’t be what they deserve. . .it’s time to put the mess that Mackey made behind us.” That’s what appeals to Aceveda, the chance to have the threat of Vic’s past lifted from him. He heads to the parking lot (“Lemansky’s talking”) and plays Vic better than he ever has. What makes it work is that he frames it entirely in his own interest (“and now all this bullshit can blow back on me.”) Vic’s face changes as slightly as it did in “Extraction,” just enough to let us know that what Aceveda said landed.
With Claudette jumped to the Captain’s office, we get the debut of The Shield’s great comedy duo: give it up for Dutch and Billings, ladies and gentlemen! Among other things, they have a perfect personality clash, with Dutch’s earnestness and arrogance continually running into Billings’ apathy (it’s so Billings that he won’t transfer because he doesn’t want to find a new route to work), and Billings’ ability to read Dutch. Jay Karnes and David Marciano are also both great voice-and-facial-expression actors; I love Billings “ohhhhhhhhhh shit” look when Dutch cracks the Mystery of the Vending Machines. Some (almost literally) Arrested Development-style dialogue there, too: “I think this is sort of a gray area.” “No. I think it’s pretty black and white,” which is not only a great exchange, but a neat thematic statement for “Postpartum” (see part two).
The Dutch/Billings case-of-the-episode takes them to a hooker and her pimp, Spank (and another scene of a woman attacking a man, Billings this time), leading to more sex in the interrogation room (calling all the way back to “Dragonchasers”) and a lecture from Spank on how to break a woman (“and then I take it away. That makes me God”; Ingmar Bergman and Karl Barth would have phrased it differently, but they would have recognized the idea). Half a lifetime ago, I’d have found what he says (and Yul Spencer’s performance) ridiculous, but by now I’ve seen Spank’s method work too many times (on men and women), and I’ve seen too much extreme behavior to think that. He’s one more example of The Shield’s heightened, theatrical approach to character, and Dutch listens to him almost as raptly as he listened to the Cuddler Rapist. A few scenes later, he tries the method out on Tina, praising her on one beat and then withdrawing the praise in the next. (I can’t have been the only one yelling “Goddammit, Dutch, NO!” in response.) Garces does a neat little bit of facial acting in response to Dutch’s pimpology (no charge); she’s not quite sure what to make of this or how to respond, and it’s not clear what her full response would be, because suddenly everyone’s running out of the Barn. . .
The last scene calls back an entire season, to the final scene of season four, and to so much of what happened since, the last link in the chain of consequences that began in the pilot. For the first time since “Ain’t That a Shame,” almost the entire cast gathers in one place, in the darkest possible reversal, all gathered in mourning and horror rather than celebration. All the plots of the season get finished here. Claudette truly becomes the captain, for the first time treating Dutch as her subordinate, not her friend or partner: “your transfer is denied. I need my best detective on this.” Tina, who before had to hide her feelings, breaks down. Michael Chiklis gives Vic a long, silent journey of looking at Lem and plays a fugue of emotion–pain, horror, confusion–across his face. It’s nothing we’ve ever seen before, and Dutch’s “Vic, Vic, you can’t touch anything” is nothing we’ve ever heard before, Dutch’s first moment of compassion towards him. The roving camera catches all the characters, foreground and background. Then Vic and Kavanaugh (“ARE YOU HAPPY NOW. DETECTIVE MACKEY.”) finally lose every mediation of their conflict, emotional, legal, moral, and just attack each other, two animals slamming and grappling and growling in the dirt like something out of Werner Herzog. Even Aceveda is here this time, and there’s a single shot of him that shows him recognizing his part in all of this, Starbuck realizing too late what Ahab was doing. The scene and the season ends with one of The Shield’s reaction shots without a cut: as Vic, Ronnie, and Shane walk off (Chiklis’ walks in a way we’ve never seen before, that’s how good he is) and Vic says “we’re gonna find who did this and we’re gonna kill him,” Shane falls one pace behind, and we end on him alone, realizing what that means.
Part Two: EXT — ABANDONED BODY SHOP — NIGHT
It began with the second episode. In “Our Gang,” minutes after Terry Crowley went into the hospital, Aceveda announced that he was pronounced dead, and Lem punched out a window in hurt. It continued all through the first and second seasons, as Lem continued to be the most reluctant member of the Strike Team (“can’t we just once do what we’re supposed to do, and then stop?”) with episodes that turned on whether or not he would be convinced. In season three, he developed an ulcer, a man who literally did not have the stomach for corruption, throwing up blood like guilt. In “Fire in the Hole,” he dumped almost the entire Money Train stash into a furnace, and everyone knew from that moment on the extent of Lem’s conscience. In the fourth season, as Lem slowly came back to the Team, Shane, who’d found a love and a marriage with Mara, began a family with her, raising Jackson, and it was clear by the middle of the season that there were no limits on what he’d do to protect them. At the beginning of season five, Kavanaugh tried to leverage Lem away from the team; in a single moment, Lem discovered that the man he’d always trusted had shot another cop dead. All through the fifth season, Lem fought to do right by his conscience and his body, still vomiting blood, and by his Team, finally, in “Of Mice and Lem,” accepting the prison term almost as solace. That idea got destroyed and became a death sentence, and he’s on the run for all of “Postpartum.”
Until this scene, Lem stays away from all the Team members. He has to flee from the trailer park, because of course he can’t ignore a crying child. (Watch for a wide-angle lens shot as he runs out the door–Kubrick used the same trick in The Shining to disorient us when people are moving.) All his conversations with Becca are on the same theme: the old deal is off the table, you need to turn yourself in, and give up the Team, and of course Lem won’t. (His last conversation with Becca has her in front of the Church of the Upper Room, a reference to where the Apostles gathered after the Ascension.) On the other end, all the scenes with Vic, Shane, and Ronnie show them not turning against Lem but growing more and more uncertain. They’re being helped by Aceveda’s disinformation, but the root of it is both what they’ve seen Lem do, and their understanding of human behavior. In their last scene together before this, so quiet in the weight room, their lines isolated by silences, no one is sure of anything; the possibility is there that Lem’s talking, and they might have to talk him back. Vic says “he’ll go along. He will” and those two extra words, and the hesitating cadence, betray his uncertainty. The repetition, and uncertainty, continues: “Lem trusts us. He trusts us. And I still trust Lem. I do.” Vic’s trying to convince himself more than Shane or Ronnie. They’ll have to go meet him now, and then a final assist from fate, as happens so often in classical tragedy: Kavanaugh has only one assistant (“I’ll take Mackey, you take Gardocki”) and Shane goes untracked, and heads on his own to meet Lem.
The story converges, as it had to, to the most elemental form of drama: two men in an empty space. Again, this is a repeated strategy of The Shield, paring the setting down to little or nothing, removing, as in theater, all circumstance and detail except the necessary conflict; here the abandoned body shop, with its curved roof and wide expanse of a nearly empty surface, even looks like a theater’s stage. Kay uses two kinds of shots here: wide shots that emphasize the theatrical architecture and medium shots on the characters. The camera has slowed down here; there’s no more swinging between possibilities, we are coming close to the moment when there will be only one action. The pacing towards that moment never accelerates; it’s the longest and most unbearable scene yet. The Shield’s theatrical expertise in staging is crucial to this scene: Shane and Lem are often not facing each other, so we can see Goggins’ expressiveness, we can see what Shane’s going through but Lem cannot. There’s one moment in particular that’s devastating, Shane right in the middle of the frame, facing forward, facing us, and Lem moving from left to right behind him, the exact staging of a dramatic soliloquy.
With the end of The Sopranos back in online attention this week, we’ve been hearing the idea that fiction is about “recognizing and exploring the mysteries of everyday life” (Matt Zoller Seitz in his Vulture article). Sometimes life isn’t at all mysterious, though. Sometimes life is a clear and unavoidable choice between two horrible alternatives. Sometimes it’s not about “embrace the mystery”; sometimes the clarity embraces you, looks in your eyes and says Choose now, and that’s what Shane comes to in this scene.
Using Michael Mann’s shorthand of expressing scenes and characters in a single verb, this scene is “Shane decides.” I don’t see a single moment when that happens; it feels more like he’s pushing the decision up a hill, initially struggling to accept, and when he reveals Mara’s pregnancy, he crosses the summit and starts heading downward towards the necessary action, pulled there by his love for Mara and Jackson and an unborn child. There is no mystery here. He says to Lem “they’re gonna make you talk, maybe not now, maybe a year from now” (something Ronnie said last episode). The idea comes clear in Shane’s mind: if Lem won’t run, Shane’s family will never be safe. And just like with Terry in the pilot, whatever Shane does must be done now, because Lem can be found or turn himself in at any moment; there’s a held shot on Lem that suggests Lem might not believe Shane, and might take off right then. We can see Shane hold to that idea and lock on to it as he works himself up to what he must do; as the scene progresses, Kay uses more closeups. All the while, Shane keeps trying to present friendliness toward Lem–I think it was Affrosponge88 who noted there’s an incredible moment of acting from Goggins when he says “yeah” to Lem and his front almost breaks. When Shane says “it’s all about family, right?” he’s just about ready to act, and Lem perfectly misunderstands. Earlier that day, Lem said to Becca “you’re asking me to turn against my family.” The irreducible conflict comes clear: Shane is Lem’s family, but Lem is not Shane’s family.
Shane gets Lem to move his car and brings him food, and in one of The Shield’s off-angle shots, where we can see Shane’s eyes closed in pain or fear or just plain not wanting to look at Lem, drops something else in the car with him. (Listen closely and you can hear the sound of Shane pulling the pin.) Two steps, three, four steps away and the grenade goes off and Curtis Lemansky disappears in the blast.
He’s not dead. Of course, this calls to mind another show and another character who got blown the fuck up and improbably lived for several seconds afterward. Comparing the two shows what Aristotle meant by using “spectacle to create not a sense of the terrible but only of the monstrous.” What happens on the other show is the latter; we see a literally monstrous image, a triumph of CGI and practical effects, and it’s an image that has resonance with the character who was killed, his position in the show, and even the title of the episode. The key thing, though, is that we in the audience see it. The character moves forward and the camera goes right up to him. Only two other people in the show’s universe see it, neither of which are characters; both function as scenery. It’s a display entirely and only for the audience.
Here, though, we see Lem’s last seconds of life through Shane’s eyes. The camera approaches as Shane does, Lem’s face at first small and indistinct in the background; the camera focuses as Shane focuses, and we see the horror of Lem’s wrecked body because Shane sees it, with one brief insert of Shane’s face recoiling before the reveal. Lem stays alive long enough for one last act not towards us but towards Shane, a word, a question:
“. . .shane?”
Shane can no doubt hear the rest of that question: Shane, Shane, why have you forsaken me? Shane yells back the answer “LEM! LEM! I’M SORRY! BUT I HAD TO RIGHT?!” and he starts crying. If Lem’s eardrums are somehow intact, he can still hear him; hearing is the last sense to go. This moment is what the preceding five seasons have been about. This moment is the goal of tragedy, the grand catharsis of pity and terror. We know why Shane did this; more than that, we know why we would do it, we can understand every step that led to this moment: the moving-toward of pity. We can see, as Shane sees, Lem’s destroyed body and see his last breath as he goes still; we recoil as Shane does at the consequences: the moving-away of terror. The moment is terrible, not monstrous, because the destruction of Lem’s body creates the terror in Shane, and it’s our empathy with this man who just killed someone he loved that is the hardest thing to take.
Underlying that goal, that moment, is the assumption of tragedy: our lives matter. They matter before they have political or social or even aesthetic significance. They matter before they explain something or make a point about something. The death of Lem matters because we matter. All these other things–what a story says about America, or about the war on drugs, or about mental disorders, or about the roles of men and women, or about cities–are interesting and they should be talked about. And all those things have a specific time, and that time will pass. The war on drugs will have its time and pass away. America, no matter how much I love and serve her, will have her time and pass away. Our social roles, our aesthetics for moving images, acting, and character, all our judgements of what makes beauty, police forces, the social structure we call cities–all these things have their time and all these things will pass away, and works that focus first on these things will become historical artifacts first, because that is what time does.
But as long as we have been human, we have loved each other; as long as we are human, we will love each other. So for long as we are human, to die at the hands of someone you love will be the worst death; to go on living after killing someone you love will be the worst life. As long as we have been human, we have told stories, and I believe we always will; it’s the telling of stories as much as our ability to love that makes us human. So as long as we are human, Shane killing Lem will be the moment the story turns, and from which it can never turn back. That is why The Shield will remain one of our greatest tragedies.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
–end of Act Two–
THE SPOILER DISTRICT
So much of the last episodes of The Shield replay elements of “Postpartum.” At the end of season 7, it will be Vic who gets the offer of immunity instead of Lem and this time, Shane won’t ever see that coming, let alone be able to stop him. pwhales noted two weeks ago that The Shield “occasionally gives us the other fork in the road”; that is, it shows us the consequence of the the option not taken. Shane saved his family by killing Lem, but when Vic confesses, he takes away Shane’s last chance to save them. The offer of Witness Protection comes up again, but it will be for Corrine and the children. There will be another, final raid with the Team outnumbered. There will be a moment of pure rage and violence from Vic (directed at one of The Shield’s longest-running and most crucial characters, Interrogation Room Camera). And once again, it will be Ronnie who pragmatically counsels dropping everything and running.
Shane killing Lem necessarily sets up the entire third act of The Shield; it’s a replay, too, of Vic killing Terry, but so much worse. Shane has nothing close to Vic’s skillz in covering up (on the most practical level, Shane has already fucked up by saying he couldn’t shake the tail, which will be what gives him away in “Chasing Ghosts”), and more importantly, Shane is so much more vulnerable to guilt than Vic. (Shane could never say “get over it, don’t bring it up again.”) Killing Lem, then, has to send the story heading to the last act of recognition, and it has to happen quickly–seasons 6 and 7 take place in a few weeks. All these things make a strong case for (as Ruck Cohlchez and others have said) seeing Shane as the real tragic hero of The Shield.
Although it was forced by Whitaker signing on to The Last King of Scotland, Kavanaugh’s quick exit in season 6 looks more and more like the right decision, especially after the scene with Corrine. There’s just no way he could do that and 1) not have Corrine or Vic use that against him and then 2) not have shit come down on him. Like his last scene with Lem in “Of Mice and Lem,” there’s a feeling in the scene with Corrine that Kavanaugh knows he’s going way too far on this, and all of that leads to his last scene from the jail cell. Watching that scene, it’s the kind of thing that reads as impossible on the page but Whitaker and Chiklis absolutely sold it.
One of Shawn Ryan’s rules for The Shield was that he didn’t want it to become too complex, so there was always a conscious effort to limit not just the number of main characters, but the supporting players and events. This forced the writers to keep stories going with groups or characters already in play, which is really effective with the ongoing story of the Salvadoran gangs. They were first brought in at the end of last season, they led to the grenades this season, and one of the major plot arcs next season will come from the DEA infiltration of them, already set up in “Postpartum.” That arc will bow out in favor of Diro and the return of the Armenians, and that takes us to the end of the series.
When Dutch tries act all pimp on Tina, it’s not just asshole behavior, it’s also so not who Dutch is. A recurring aspect of his character all through the show is that his insecurity keeps blocking his best instincts, and that’s how the whole Dutch/Tina story played out. (Dutch, in the name of Her Majesty and the Continental Congress, just ask her out.) It was painful to watch, but like so much on The Shield, it wasn’t discomfort for the sake of discomfort, it was based in something real about Dutch and Tina as characters. The same principle applies to Dutch and Billings; they’d have been fine if Dutch didn’t always need to be the smartest guy in the district and if Billings gave a shit occasionally. (In fact, they are fine on the cases where Billings cares, and it’s afterwards when Dutch screws things up.) The resolution of the Dutch/Billings/Tina story, with Billings sending Dutch to see Tina and Hiatt fucking, may have been too much of a Chuck Lorre sitcom moment, but it felt in character for Billings and its aftermath was done perfectly. I’m always on board with a scene that shows just how useless Hiatt is.